Saturday, November 28, 2009

You put WHAT in your stuffing???

Thanksgiving! It's always been one of my favorite holidays and this year is no exception. The biggest change this year is that for the first time in my 32 years of life we did not have Thanksgiving dinner at my parent's house. Instead, we gathered at the new home of my brother and sister in law. And boy, do I mean gathered. 16 Carraturo's and Nigro's gathered around an extended dining room table for one of the largest feasts I have ever seen. Everyone was responsible for something different. My sister in law's family would handle the turkey, a ham and some of the sides, my Aunt Terri would bring wine and the best Italian bread found this side of the Atlantic from Cuccio's Bakery on Avenue X in Brooklyn and I was on dessert (which incidentally was a white chocolate pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust, a maple bourbon sweet potato pie and a chocolate cream pie in case you were wondering). My mother was going to make her stuffed mushrooms but more importantly she was to make her famous stuffing.

Now, what's so special about stuffing you ask? Well - this is no ordinary stuffing. When I was a kid I'd see commericals for stove top and cringe. Bread in stuffing? Blech! My neighbors across the street made a stuffing with rice and chestnuts and sausage which puzzled me through the years. This was something Americans ate with their turkey. But we, we were Italian. Bread had its time and place at every table but NOT in stuffing. I remember every Thanksgiving morning my grandfather would come over sometime around 5am. He'd prepare the stuffing that morning and then stuff the bird, sew it up and get it in the oven before heading home to relax a bit and clean up before he and my grandmother came back for dinner that afternoon (served traditional Italian American style at 2pm and lasting until somewhere around 9pm).

So now you're probably asking what goes into this famous stuffing since there's no bread and no rice. It is the perfect blend of eggs, mozzarella, sausage meat and a few raisins. You start by browning bulk Italian sausage in a hot pan, if it doesn't already have fennel you should add some fennel seed to the meat for flavor. When its brown you add beaten eggs and let them begin to solidify. Then add cubed mozzarella and the raisins and stir till it just starts to set. We put some of the stuffing in the bird and let it roast until its all fully cooked and the rest goes into a baking dish and gets baked along side. I know I know - it sounds unnaturally simple but it really is the perfect combination of savory flavors.

This stuffing has been known to resolve family conflicts, or, start them if the distribution of leftovers is not done evenly. My brother and I have been known to resort to low tricks such as hiding the remaining stuffing in the back of the fridge under the brussel sprouts where we think the other won't look. I had an ex-boyfriend once who years after we broke up still came around for leftover thanksgiving stuffing (in exchange he gave us jars of his homemade Irish cream). We've argued the proper egg to sausage ratio, whether it should be 6 raisins, 8 or 9....whether an even or an odd number is better luck. But we've never thought about changing the stuffing.

I was 30 years old before I tried and accepted the fact that stove top and other bread stuffings had merit. Wild rice with sausage and roasted chestnuts is absolutely delicious and makes for a wonderful side dish. But don't you dare come anywhere near my bird with anything but the stuffing of my youth. Anything else is just bread!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Smother Me With Love

I work in fundraising so the fall season is always my busiest. Year end mailings, solicitations, lists, events, reports, all seems to be needed at once. Add to that 3 graduate courses in nonprofit administration and what you end up with is one very stressed me. After what felt like an incredibly long work day, I just couldn't handle the thought of going to class last night. My head was full of numbers and data and deadlines and the thought of sitting in a hot overcrowded classroom on the 13th floor of what is possibly the saddest building in the entire CUNY system listening to my professor drone about the wonders of strategic management did not inspire me. Nor was I in the mood to battle with the overzealous security guards who control the elevators in said sad building. "13th FLOOR EXPRESS ONLY! MOVE TO THE SIDE! TAKE YOUR BAGS OFF!" as they pack us into the little metal box like sardines into a can minus the delicious bath of olive oil.

So using an art I perfected in High School, I cut class for the evening. I was immediately filled with a heady excitement. What will I do with my night off? Should I go out and paint the town red? Pick up bad take out and curl up on the couch with a chick flick? Be productive and clean my apartment and do laundry? No. None of these would do! As I rode the subway uptown to the northern end of the world otherwise known as Washington Heights flipping through one of my favorite foodie magazines I was struck with inspiration! Smothered Pork Chops! What better way is there to spend an evening than smothering something!

I got off the train and headed to my favorite overpriced but best quality Washington Heights market on West 187th Street and picked up two bone in pork chops, cremini mushrooms, a large Spanish onion and rosemary. I also picked up the ingredients to make a cauliflower puree to go along with my chops.

I set to work immediately upon getting home. Well almost immediately, first I had to take care of the screaming kitty that was pacing around my ankles whose cries could only be translated to "Feed me! FEED ME! I'm STAARRRVVVINNNGGG". Once that was taken care of and the sounds of "nomnomnompurrrpurrrpurrnomnom" filled the kitchen, then I set to work. I sprinkled the chops with salt and pepper (both sides of course) and then gave them a light dusting of flour (and as usual gave myself, the kitchen and the cat a light dusting as well). A little olive oil in my cast iron skillet and I set the chops to browning. While they seared I sliced the onions, mushrooms and chopped up the rosemary. Once the chops were browned on both sides I removed them to a plate, added a little more olive oil and added the onions to the pan to start them cooking. After about 2 minutes I added the mushrooms and rosemary plus a little more salt and pepper and let it cook for about another 5 minutes. After the onions and mushrooms were brown and yummy looking I added the pork chops back into the pan along with any juice that had collected, added about a cup of water and let it simmer, covered for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, as the chops simmered away I prepped the cauliflower. I broke the head down into florets and then added them to a pan with chicken stock and rosemary. I let it boil until the cauliflower was tender. Into a blender with about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid and then pureed till smooth. Once its smooth I added about 1 tablespoon of butter and about 1/2 cup of grated pecorino romano.

By that time the chops were deliciously tender. Serve by spooning some of the puree on the plate, add the pork chop and top with some of the mushrooms and onions.

Back in my High School days cutting class meant sitting in the courtyard, smoking cigarettes and wondering if my guidance counselor was going to tell my mother I cut when she made her weekly call to make sure I was going to class. Last night I called my mother myself to let her know I skipped and told her exactly what I was doing and was still somewhat surprised when she said she understood completely. My things have changed!